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The Glory and the Wonder of Teaching Children to Read

Mimetic teaching is the heart of sound instruction (the thing, not the name). But there’s a challenge in teaching: sometimes we teach children to see things, other times we teach them to use names. It’s not the same thing and that has affects on how we teach.

I wrote about this on the LTW Mentor earlier today and thought this might have some value for parents and teachers who want to better understand and therefore better teach their children how to read. Here it is (I hope the formatting holds):

There is something about phonics that is important but not necessarily easy to communicate or understand. In general, you teach mimetically so the student will be able to perceive a truth/concept/idea.

When it comes to phonics, these are conventions. In other words, they are human inventions, not
God-designed creations found in nature. This does not make them bad, but it does make them a
different kind of thing.

When we learn conventions (letters, phonics, commas, words, etc.) we are not learning
things that are bound necessarily into the fabric of existence, the way, for
example, the nature of a tree or an eyeball is.

The easiest way to express this might be to draw an analogy between Adam naming
the animals and the child learning phonograms. Learning the nature of the animal
is not the same thing as learning the name of the animal. Adam studied the
animals to note their natures; then he named them.

He could then turn to Cain and Abel and say “that is a lion,” in their language.
That would shorten the amount of time it took Cain and Abel to learn what a lion
is, but it also ran the risk of coming between the boys and the truth of what a
lion is. In other words, they could have used the name as a substitute for the
thing. We do that all the time. It’s why we prefer memorizing lists of kings to
learning about the kings. The first option can be quizzed easily, the second
takes work.

Here’s the analogy:

A phonogram is a name. The sound to which it refers is the animal.

There are actual sounds in nature that don’t mean much. There are also things in
nature that we can know (balls, cats, water, plants, fire, etc.). After we learn what a thing is,
we can attach a sound to it. We call that sound a “name” or a “word”. The name is not the thing,
it is the name we give the thing.

In Latin, the word nomen means “name.” It also means “noun.” And it also can
mean “word.” This illustrates (it doesn’t prove, but it illustrates) the way a
word is a name for a thing.

Ok, so far so good, I hope. In the ancient world, people went around using
sounds to refer to things. We call those sounds “names” or “words.”

At some point, some genius figured out that each sound could be represented with
a picture. As you can see, that discovery gave us the alphabet. It enabled us to
communicate better and thus to think better. It also complicated the number of
things we had to learn to effectively communicate and think.

Previously, if you went to “school” you learned to play a musical instrument and
to dance and do gymnastics while memorizing the cultural traditions in the form
of poetry. Now, with this new writing technology, things are changing. You won’t
have as much time to memorize the poetry, because you have to learn this new technology
of writing/reading.

Because reading and writing are human inventions (conventions, not creations),
they are harder to understand and harder to teach. It takes years for a child to
learn how to read and write. But once they have learned these new tools, they
are given power to think beyond anything that is possible without them.

But the problem I am addressing here, and the one we have all had to deal with
if we have taught children how to read, is that this is not, in the strictest
sense, a natural activity. That makes it less naturally pleasant and immediately
rewarding. It also removes us farther and farther from the thing being named.

Consider: If I have a tree and I name it “tree” I have pretty much a one to one
correlation: Here is the thing I call a tree, and here in my mouth is the
sound/name (word) tree. Great. Simple. The sign = the thing.

When I add writing, there is more to it:

1. Now I have the thing= the tree itself.
2. I also have the sonic sign (sound/name or spoken word) = the word “tree”
3. I also have the letters that make up the sound word = T-R-E-E
4. I also have the sounds that each of those letters makes = “t”, “rr”, “ee”
5. And then to complicate it a little more, I have combinations of those letters
that make sounds as if they were only one letter = ee= E
6. And then I have 29 or so rules that define the relations between those
letters and the sounds they make
7. And finally, because we are English speakers, God help us, there are rather a
fyoo wurds that brake the rools.

Notice the distance the child’s mind has to cover to get from #6 to #1. It’s no
wonder that schools have a history of forgetting that there is a world outside
the written text about which the written text is written.

Back to the point. When you teach phonics, you don’t have the clean one to one
relation between the conventional sign/word (name) and the natural thing.
Instead, you have a collection of conventions that refer to a convention that
refers to a thing. And that is a simplification.

You also have a natural element woven into the convention (did I just lose you?)
in the sound being represented by the sign (letter). The sound “b,” for example,
is not unlike the sound a lamb makes. Most of the sounds of the alphabet are
made by some creature, and all of them can be made by us (which is pretty amazing
when you think about it).

Now, you might be getting frustrated with me because of how complexicated things
are getting, but 1. I’m not the one who complicated them and 2. how do you think
your children feel trying to sort all this out?

Everything that precedes this paragraph is actually an appeal for
teachers/adults to understand sympathetically how incredibly amazingly difficult
and amazing it is for a child to learn how to read. If you can understand that,
you can make it pretty easy – by going slowly, steadily, one step at a time.

So here’s the point:

When you teach a phonogram/phoneme, the mimetic sequence will help but will
need to be adapted. The phonogram you want the child to learn is not a thing. It is
a sign for a thing. The thing for which it is a sign is a sound. Therefore,

  1. what they need to learn first is the sound.
  2. Then they need to learn the sign.
  3. Then they need to learn to associate the sign to the sound.

The best way to do this is the old tried and true method of show and drill.

  1. Make the sound with them. Show them animals that make the sound.
    Find the sound in nature. All of that can help.
  2. Then show them the sign. Over and over and over again. Because it is a
    conventional sign, it doesn’t reside eternally in their souls. You have to put
    it there through repetition.
  3. Then link the sign to the sound, over and over and over again.

Make the sound till they can make it. Show them the sign. Link the sign to
the sound. Do it again and again, bringing in every conceivable aid to help.

Along the way, show them how to make the written sign (but note that now their
minds are directed to a different problem to solve, so until they can comfortably make the
sign (ie the letter) without any reflection, it will distract them from linking
the sign to the sound.

After they learn to link the sound to the sign without thinking or reflecting or
conscious problem solving, you can teach them how to link that sound with other
sounds to put together a complex of sounds that we call a word.

But that comes later.

Summary:

You can teach phonics mimetically, but be sure to teach the sound separately
from the sign and the linking of the sign to the sound separately from the sign
and the sound. It’s three mimetic lessons, each of which might take a while.
Separated this way, though, they could be a lot of fun. (I’m picturing you
making “uh” sounds with your five year olds!). And they’ll be learned more
securely and thus, in the long run, more quickly.

After you’ve taught five or six phonograms, you will have given them multiple
“types” of linking signs to sounds. They might not, probably won’t, understand
that. But they will gain confidence in it. And as they do, they’ll engage with
increasing enthusiasm and readiness in the process of learning new signs,
sounds, and links until, having discovered the inner logic of learning how to
read, they’ll take it on themselves and learn faster than you thought was
possible.

Many parents and almost every reading teacher is aware of the way children works
and works and works at reading until, all of a sudden, they get it. This
dynamic, inner logic of reading is what they get.

Reading is a manifestation of the Image of God in us, both in its elegant
simplicity and in its breathless complexity.

I hope this captured a bit of both.

Blessings and prayers on your teaching (and patience),

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